AJGA’s Rolex ToC course punishing players
AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions
• Round 1 recap: Underdogs take early lead at AJGA ToC
JOHNSON, Ark. – Blessings Golf Club was hardly recognizable to Matthew Mabrey, even though he won here 10 months ago. The course is playing 500 yards longer. The landing areas are tighter. The rough is up, and so is the wind.
“If you don’t hit fairways,” said Mabrey, winner of the ’09 AJGA Arkansas Junior, “then you’re done.”
Few know better than Mabrey how unforgiving Blessings can be. He shot 88 Tuesday in the opening round of the AJGA’s Rolex Tournament of Champions, but he was far from the only player to struggle on a day when more players shot in the 90s (two) than 60s (one).
Indeed, Blessings offers a little of everything: holes long and short, penal and forgiving, majestic and maddening. Said Sam Straka, the leader after 18 holes: “Every hole is trouble.”
In a Monday practice round, Anthony Paolucci told his playing partners he thought the winning score would be around even par, but that number may balloon if the wind continues to blow and the greens dry out. The winner, Paolucci said, will be the player who makes the fewest double bogeys, a peculiar submission from a guy whose winning score at the Thunderbird International Junior was 12-under par.
“You can’t worry about the score out here,” said Paolucci, who shot 71, two strokes behind Straka. “If you make double or triple, you just have to move on. It’s going to happen. I know I can still play well and shoot 80 out here.”
Paolucci played in the premier pairing Tuesday, with Gavin Hall and Emiliano Grillo, who at No. 5 is the highest-ranked player in the field this week. Hall took a triple-bogey 8 on the par-5 16th and shot 75. Grillo made three doubles and shot 80.
Paolucci found trouble, too, but he escaped without inflicting too much damage. “At other courses, there might be a bunker or a hazard, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before,” Paolucci said. “But here, when you get lined up and you have 5-foot-tall rough on both sides of the fairway, and you’re not going to find your ball if you hit it there, yeah, it gets in the back of your mind.
“It’s like, if you don’t hit a good shot here, I’m hitting my third shot from the tee box.”
That was the case for several players on the par-4 11th, which plays drastically uphill. Tournament officials actually moved up the tee – it played 415 yards in Round 1 – but the landing area is so narrow it looks as though you’re threading a tee shot down a hall corridor. Paolucci avoided all the trouble, taking 5-iron off the tee to keep the ball in play, but “even with iron I was still nervous.”
Mabrey didn’t play quite as conservatively. He pushed a drive right, into the knee-high fescue, and needed to take two unplayables just to extricate himself from the rough. He made a sixtuple-bogey 10, one of 11 “others” on a hole that played to a 5.13 stroke average on Day 1.
“It’s a tough one,” Mabrey said.
But oh, there are many others.
• At the 204-yard eighth, any shot that didn’t catch the fat part of the green gathered in a collection area 20 feet below the putting surface. From there, a player can either flop, chip or putt, neither of which are desirable options with the hole tucked in the back-left corner. Jason Roets of South Africa, who led for much of the day after turning in 5-under 30, made double bogey there and staggered in with a 72.
• The 10th is a short par 3, requiring little more than a flick of the wedge. Framed by a rock wall that serves as a natural amphitheater, the hole features a hazard just off the right and a punishing bunker on the left. “Nowhere to miss it there,” Paolucci said.
• The 444-yard sixth hole yielded just four birdies in the opening round, with the hole located perilously close to a retaining wall.
• The par-5 16th played as the second-toughest hole on Day 1, with a stroke average of 5.64. There were more doubles (12) than birdies (10).
• And the par-3 17th is easily the most scenic on the course, with the tee set some 100 feet above the level of the green, but it’s a severe test at 241 yards. “During the practice round,” Paolucci said, “I was just afraid I was going to let go of my club and watch it go down the cliff.”
Several players’ rounds suffered a similar fate Tuesday.